Tunisia’s women caught between burqa and bikini

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The two years since the revolution that toppled Tunisia’s dictatorship have seen some women enjoying the freedom to dress in traditional Islamic clothing, while others are worried about losing their rights, the BBC reported on Wednesday.

Arije Nasser, a 22-year-old English student, said she chose to wear the niqab, the full veil revealing only the eyes, after the revolution of 2011.


“I feel like a princess when I walk down the street wearing this. The niqab and even the hijab were forbidden before the revolution, but now we feel more comfortable to practice our religious activities.” said Nasser.

More women have decided to wear the niqab, and other conservative Tunisians like her have benefited from their newfound religious freedom, she added.

However, many women worry that with an Islamist-dominated government, they may lose their freedom to dress as they please.The former regime was aggressively secular, and encouraged women to wear Western-style clothes.

Nostalgia for a secular state

Some 800 people demonstrated recently in central Tunis, calling for a secular state.

“Tunisia has always been an advanced country in the Arab world when it comes to women’s rights, but now unfortunately our rights are threatened,” said one of the protesters, blogger Lina Ben Mhenni.

“Before the revolution we used to ask for more rights, for total equality, but now we’re just trying to preserve and keep the rights we already have.”

When former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was in power, Tunisian women enjoyed more freedoms than others in the Arab world, the BBC reported.

The Tunisian government, dominated by the Islamist Ennahda party, has not taken away the rights that existed under Ben Ali, such as divorce on equal terms and a ban on polygamy.

The party “isn’t looking to impose a lifestyle on anyone. We’re here to defend freedom,” said Said Ferjani, a senior member of Ennahda’s political bureau.

“Just look at this girl who did a topless protest. We protect her rights, but we also protect the rights of women to wear the niqab,” Ferjani added.

Amina, the topless girl Ferjani referred to, created a Tunisian Facebook group for the international feminist movement Femen, which generally uses nudity as a form of protest.

The 19-year-old posted an image of herself topless on the page, with “my body is mine, not somebody’s to honor” written on her chest in Arabic.

Ennahda officials do not openly oppose Amina’s protest, but a prominent Salafist cleric has called for the young woman to be flogged and stoned to death.

“I think the situation for women in Tunisia now, two years after the fall of the regime, is mixed,” said Amna Guellali, director of Human Rights Watch in Tunisia.

Nothing has changed in terms of the legal status of women, but “big changes are happening deep in society,” she added.

“There are more hardliners, more of these so-called Salafist groups who tend to impose their own vision of society and religion. I think this might have a very strong effect on women.”

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